- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Owen Meany is an extraordinary literary creation, and Round House Theatre’s staging, epically directed by artistic director Blake Robison, does towering justice to author John Irving’s bat-eared, banshee-voiced, pipsqueak believer in miracles.

The show is a faith-based initiative of which everyone should partake. Both the novel and the play come down hard on organized religion and hypocrisy within the church but still make a shimmering testimony on the power of faith. It’s the kind of far-reaching, visually majestic and sublimely acted production you wish more area theaters would tackle instead of warmed-over revivals.

At turns comic, scathing and emotionally wrenching, “A Prayer for Owen Meany” blends compassion and social commentary in a disarming tale about a friendship that begins in the afterglow of America’s post-World War II years and ends in the fiery tumult of the Vietnam era.

It would be indelicate to guess Mr. Robison’s age, but he was either there or gathered chemically unaltered eyewitnesses to so expertly capture the 1960s whirligig zeitgeist of tattered patriotism and simmering unrest.

British playwright Simon Bent deftly whittles down Mr. Irving’s hefty 1989 novel to three acts, yielding a running time within a hair of under three hours. Irving purists might chafe at the elimination of meaty subplots and Yankee-fied Dickensian characters, but the stage adaptation moves swiftly and grippingly, focusing on the relationship between Owen Meany (Matthew Detmer) and John Wheelwright (Ian Kahn), best friends from childhood in a small New England town through to their young adult years in the turbulent 1960s. James Kronzer’s simple, striking set charts these changes in America, beginning with a dreamy, cloud-like backdrop that looks like an N.C. Wyeth illustration. By the third act, it shifts into a blistering, graphic rendering of the American flag slapped up on a huge cement wall.

John narrates the play, first explaining that his belief in God is because of Owen Meany. His spiritual conversion is all the more startling given that Owen killed his mother Tabitha (Gia Mora) in a tragic Little League baseball accident. Against all odds, the friendship endures, with John defending and championing Owen — who is an odd duck, to say the least. Small in stature (Kate Turner-Walker’s oversized costumes ingeniously convey the coat hanger effect), possessing a regrettable set of ears and a high-pitched voice that lodges in your brain like a drill bit, Owen believes that he’s an instrument of God and that he was put on this Earth for a purpose.

It is essential that you admire and not pity Owen Meany, and Mr. Detmer contributes a star-making performance, possessing an oddball charisma that draws you to the character. Owen’s insistent falsetto (which was rendered in the book in capital letters) does not lay easy on the ears, but Mr. Detmer suffuses the voice and the character with humor, curiosity, and cocksure persistence.

John Wheelwright is a more introverted and contained presence, and Mr. Kahn hauntingly captures his conflicted nature and his determination to make sense of it all. Miss Mora makes a vibrant, saucy Tabitha of Marilyn Monroe ripeness, a contrast to Owen’s wraithlike mother (the excellent Kimberly Schraf) and miserable father (Lawrence Redmond, in a creepy gothic turn). John Lescault gently plays the tortured soul Reverend Louis Merrill, and Michael Kramer paints arresting miniportraits in a variety of supporting roles.

Owen is a symbol of faith in a profane, disbelieving era. He’s someone who not only swears by miracles, but who knows they are constantly unfolding before our indifferent eyes. He sees the world the way a prophet might — a place of gore and glory, where belief is measured in our ability to trust what we cannot see and love what we thought was unforgivable.

When Owen flies — either on the basketball court or in the play’s galvanizing climax — you can see the cables bearing him aloft, but it doesn’t matter. The effect is still magical and if you want to get all profound about it, the wires seem to drop down from above just when he needs them.

Literary adaptations can be a tricky business. With the Washington Shakespeare Company’s exemplary adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” a few seasons ago, theatergoers rediscovered the rarefied, feminine soul beneath the smutty reputation and carnal heartbeat of D.H. Lawrence’s classic erotic novel.

With “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” it’s entirely different. Mr. Irving always intended for us to see the transmigratory nature of Owen Meany, his halting but unwavering progression toward the fate he believed God assigned him at birth. But to see it onstage gives his journey the majesty of ritual. We, too, are transformed by the sight of Owen Meany soaring up into the air, his shrill voice revealed to be an instrument instead of an impediment, his heart high and weighted with purpose.

****

WHAT: “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” novel by John Irving, adaptation by Simon Bent

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 8.

TICKETS: $25 to $55

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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